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Wildrose Party's largest-ever caucus meets ahead of 'tough' challenge

Wildrose leader Brian Jean shakes hands with MLA David Hanson, right, as the rest of his caucus applauds during the first meeting of the official opposition in Edmonton, Alberta on Monday, May 11, 2015.

AMBER BRACKEN/The Globe and Mail

Only months after the Wildrose Party had been written off due to infighting and mass defections, Alberta's first NDP premier will face the largest Wildrose caucus yet when she stands in the provincial legislature this spring.

Riding the same wave of anger that sank the Progressive Conservative dynasty and helped Rachel Notley's New Democrats win a historic victory, 21 Wildrose MLAs were elected last Tuesday – 18 of them rookies. On Monday, Wildrose Leader Brian Jean pledged to work with Ms. Notley to improve schooling and health care for Albertans. However, he and his official opposition caucus will oppose any tax hikes.

"It's going to be tough. We have an ideological government on one side that is clearly far to the left," Mr. Jean said on Monday morning as he met his caucus for the first time.

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Mr. Jean has been leader of his unabashedly right-wing party for only 44 days. While he was a federal Conservative MP for eight years, he has yet to stand in the Alberta legislature as an MLA. Only three members of his caucus are incumbents, one fewer than the untested NDP government.

"We are going to work to hold the government to account, keep it on its toes and to shave off some of the more ideologically extreme excesses of the NDP," said Derek Fildebrandt, a newly elected MLA who will be the Wildrose finance critic.

Born in the 2000s from grassroots anger in southern Alberta against the long-ruling Tories, the Wildrose Party seemed to be crashing to an end last December when its leader, Danielle Smith, led a mass floor crossing to the PCs. The Wildrose Nine, as the group was known, left a rump that many thought would be wiped out.

On Monday, Mr. Jean said the Wildrose was bigger than one person and attributed the rebound to the party being "a movement across Alberta." As the Wildrose polling numbers unexpectedly leaped during last month's election campaign, party officials joked they were leading a "zombie" opposition that could not be slain.

Now they face another problem. After decades of near one-party rule in Alberta, no opposition boardroom is big enough to seat Mr. Jean's caucus. While some opposition caucuses were large during the Tories' nearly 44 years in power, most were short-lived. It was not uncommon for the PCs to control more than 70 of the province's 87 seats, so other parties needed little room.

Mr. Jean says he is setting his sights on winning the next provincial election, expected in 2019. Until then, his party's goal is to advocate for balanced budgets, lower taxes, more accountability in government and better education and health systems.

Fixing health care in Alberta will be a personal crusade for Mr. Jean. His 24-year-old son, Michael, died on March 20 after four months in hospitals as doctors tried to diagnose his illness. The memories remain painful.

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While past Wildrose leaders adopted a caustic style, Mr. Jean joked on Monday that he would like to be known as "Mr. Sunshine" in the legislature. He ruled out "fear mongering," vowing to rely on "good logic and good argument."

But that will not stop his party from looking for embarrassing information about the newly elected and largely unknown NDP caucus. One new NDP MLA is facing a petition for her removal after embarrassing photos emerged, including one of her mugging in front of a T-shirt adorned with a marijuana leaf. Wildrose officials told The Globe and Mail they are finding compromising information about other MLAs as quickly as the NDP is taking it off the Internet.

"It's our job to tell Albertans who these people are. That includes looking into their backgrounds and pasts," Wildrose spokesman Evan Menzies said.

Mr. Jean appointed six members to his shadow cabinet on Monday, and more will be added once the NDP cabinet is formed. The third party also got a new chief on Monday as the PCs named outgoing Labour Minister Ric McIver as interim leader. Premier Jim Prentice resigned as party leader during his concession speech last week.

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About the Author
Ontario legislative reporter

Based in Toronto, Justin Giovannetti is The Globe and Mail’s Ontario legislative reporter. He previously worked out of the newspaper’s Edmonton, Toronto and B.C. bureaus. He is a graduate of Montreal’s Concordia University and has also worked for CTV in Quebec. More

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